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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Freedom and responsibility

(The following is part of something I wrote for my daughter to read as she grows up. I am reproducing it here in connection with what is being discussed at the thread titled 'Freedom' in my orkut community, 'The Good Life!'. For those who find it too long or unimportant or boring, my suggestion is 'please don't read!' As for the others, I shall be glad to respond to intelligent queries, doubts and arguments)
As far as we can look back in history, men have been compelled to grapple over and over again with this conundrum, in practical life as well as in the groves of academe – which do we need more, freedom or responsibility? This or that philosopher seems to have laid excessive, even exclusive stress on the one, almost ignoring the claims of the other. As we learn more and more about human nature, and the economic and cultural circumstances in which it existed and functioned, we begin to acquire the insight that the views of most philosophers were strongly coloured by the exigencies of the land and epoch that they lived in. In an age of great social turmoil and confusion, when the world seemed about to dissolve in anarchy, the most powerful minds gave a clarion call in favour of the restoration of discipline (the greatest ‘imperialists’, including our own Kautilya among them), whereas in other times and places, when dull, oppressive, seemingly pointless routine, injustice and tyranny seemed to be threatening to snuff out the human spirit itself, the finest and bravest leaders of thought struck for freedom in the ‘liberty or death’ mood made famous by Patrick Henry during the early days of the American Revolution.

But the most clear-headed and profound people have always known, at the intuitive level at least, that it is not really a question of either/or: we need both freedom and discipline (meaning the practice of being responsible, to others as well as to ourselves, to the near and to the far), though sometimes more of the one than the other, and sometimes more of the one for the individual and more of the other for the collective. It must never be forgotten that freedom is the higher of the two desirables – this conviction, I believe, will forever remain the single greatest contribution of America to the world, not bubble gum and moon rockets – and discipline must never be more than a means to achieving greater all-round freedom for everybody. And yet, discipline itself is so protean an idea, and so difficult to cultivate without force (which is the arch-enemy of freedom!), and yields such miraculous power when vast numbers can be disciplined together (as the Catholic church found, and every military commander knows) and we are all so eager to discipline everything happening around ourselves and so loth to discipline ourselves, that we keep on making mistakes, terrible mistakes, again and again, equally at the levels of families and empires, and it still doesn’t seem to me that we have learnt very much in the last six thousand years of civilization. Or maybe our animal instincts simply haven’t had enough time to be disciplined – after all, we had been little better than beasts, and very insecure, cantankerous and aggressive beasts at that, for several hundred thousand years, and habits die hard! The whole problem is that half-apes have become so suddenly endowed with the powers of the gods (to paraphrase Einstein slightly) within a few centuries – a blink of the eye, in biological terms, if you think about it – that they are now tottering on the abyss of total disaster. We have become technically overdeveloped while remaining moral cretins: Archimedes would have thought he was dreaming if he woke up in today’s world, but the Buddha would have found that hardly anything had changed! Unless we can civilize ourselves very fast, we might not be around for much longer, and the ants and cockroaches and bacteria might have the last laugh! – The reason I am so serious about this paradox of freedom versus responsibility is that here, I believe, is the key to the kind of civilization we need to survive and prosper over the long run; we’ve just got to resolve that paradox somehow. And it isn’t enough for a few thousand ivory-tower philosophers to realize what we need: politicians and schoolteachers by the hundred thousand must strive night and day to make that dream civilization a reality by educating the young differently. – Alas, from what I have seen of either tribe, they don’t seem to have an inkling about what they must do, and why!

Let me try to explain how I see the freedom/discipline dichotomy. One very important dimension of it becomes clear if you observe how one becomes an adept at music – whether just listening to it or trying to sing or play some instrument oneself. One must devote thousands of hours of earnest, concentrated, routine labour until one’s ears and fingers can do it ‘by heart’, whether it be detecting a single false note in someone else’s music or playing a perfect melody with apparently effortless ease (I have seen some masters almost falling asleep listening to their own fingers playing). The great creative artists, who make new music, all aver without exception that this kind of rigorous preparation is absolutely essential to achieving anything near perfection: and that perfection is not only, supremely, its own reward (it makes living life blissful as nothing else can – that is real freedom indeed, and it does not come cheap!), but also the key to all kinds of worldly success, such as the adulation of discerning audiences, and vast fees and multi-column photographs in the newspapers and a deeply satisfying sense of identity and dignity: reed you may still be, you are no longer some trivial cog in a vast wheel any more. The very same long and arduous discipline – sadhana is what we have called it in India for thousands of years – is equally and unavoidably necessary for attaining the heights of success in any other field where great skill and finesse are called for, from precision surgery to driving formula one cars (and, I will assert from experience, real teaching). In some of the most challenging fields, such as writing fiction and scientific research and raising children and building great business empires, success is not even certain to be the reward for such single-minded pursuit, and yet one must strive ceaselessly, for this much is certain: without totally committed effort there can be no success. In this sense, at least, I have understood the Lord’s exhortation to engage in action dispassionately.
Everybody desires the success and the glamour and the glory, but very few instinctively appreciate the essential connection between sustained, dedicated hard work and success; that is why they have to be ‘potty-trained’ as it were in childhood if they are to achieve anything worthwhile in later life. This is ancient wisdom, and modern-day ‘experts’ have done untold harm to whole generations by trying to eschew such discipline because it makes work ‘boring’. Disciplined practice for years is essential for everybody even to become passably good at very basic civilized tasks – it is the newfangled schooling that is responsible for the fact that millions of ostensibly educated people today cannot spell confidently, add up figures in their heads, speak coherently and write letters with minimal grammatical accuracy, let alone elegance. Even good taste, whether it be in books or wines or music or indoor décor, needs to be cultivated with the same kind of earnest discipline: therefore it is no wonder again that so many ‘educated’ and well-off people today live in over-ornate but ugly houses, dress expensively yet badly in ‘designer’ clothes, and ‘advanced’ as they imagine themselves to be, cannot believe that more than two thousand years ago, ordinary folks in Athens could sit raptly through the plays of Aeschylus and Aristophanes, brought up as they have been on football matches, video games, television sitcoms and ‘rave’ parties! ‘Advanced’ indeed. ‘Demented’ or ‘cuturally-challenged’ would be far more apt descriptions.

Incidentally, one reason for so much corruption and frustration among middle-class people in today’s India, and the reason why I worry so much for India’s future is that, though we have respect for discipline deeply ingrained in our tradition, we seem to have given it up lately in favour of the ‘get-rich-quick’ philosophy, looking always for shortcuts to success in every sphere of life, and therefore not only cheating our fellow men by being bad doctors, lawyers, traders, administrators and teachers (we have grown up to be indisciplined!) but never finding the self-esteem, self-possession and self-satisfaction that we are all actually looking for. No nation ever became great through the efforts of lazy, sloppy, timid, aimless, impatient men and women (who are greedy to boot!). If someone points out to me that even people in the ‘advanced’ nations are behaving like that today, I shall calmly reply that firstly, not all of them are doing it, you’re just looking at the wrong people; secondly, if many are indeed doing it, they are merely eating into the capital slowly built up through the loving labours of their ancestors over many generations – that capital must be built up first! – and I am quite sure that such misguided nations will not remain the movers and shakers of the world for much longer. Notice that though the average Briton is much better off today, in purely economic terms, than his mid-19th century ancestor, Britain no longer matters to the world the way she did in those days, and this is only partly because other nations have caught up with her; much more seriously, it is because the British have lost their urge to greatness a long time ago, having elected to be content merely with a high ‘standard of living’, which in fact is no living at all, though it may be a means to good living, which always means living with a purpose, a good purpose, a spiritual purpose. All historically-conscious people – professors of history not necessarily among them! – will know exactly what I mean. A lot of people, collectively as well as individually, think that they are being clever by sawing off the branch on which they are sitting – if you cannot save your countrymen from such suicidal folly, do not at least become one of them.

Another dimension of the true meaning of discipline versus freedom was very well explained by A. G. Gardiner in a little essay called The Rule of the Road. You have every right, he says, to amble down the middle of the street twirling your walking stick at the end of your finger, but your right to enjoy yourself stops an inch from my nose! – that is to say, every man has a sacred right to enjoy his freedom his own way, however eccentric and pointless it may seem to others, but no man may encroach upon his fellow-man’s rights (the right to safety in this instance) in the process. I read this when I was 17, and I have been marvelling ever since at the miraculous ease and thoroughness with which the author has solved the puzzle for us, and drawn the line just right. If all mankind had only as much wisdom and forbearance as needed to obey that little injunction – enjoy yourselves without discomfiting or hurting your fellows – the world would have been paradise. Men don’t behave like that most of the time in real life, of course. Far more commonly, we are constantly ridiculing, harassing, obstructing and trying to prevent our neighbours from enjoying their freedoms in ways that are perfectly harmless to us though they seem outlandish (reading poetry or not watching cricket, for example!), while we allow the same people to trample on our rights without a murmur (playing loud music at dead of night and spreading scandal and driving rashly and littering parks) when we should protest unitedly and vehemently that such behaviour has no place in a civilized society.

But I suppose men would have needed to be angels then, and as one early American President said, if men were all angels, we should not have needed governments! Actually, I think therein lies the original, major, and unavoidable justification for government (as represented equally by bureaucracy, courts and schools); most men, as they are made, will not behave decently in the above sense unless to some extent compelled, and it is government’s primary duty to make deviants fall back in line with deterrent punishment or at least credible threats of such punishment while encouraging every man who does not wish to hurt the world to go ahead and live life his own way – so that all men may live with the maximum possible freedom and safety. In this sense government is a necessary evil, and all governments must be judged primarily by this criterion: whether and how well they are restricting every citizen’s freedom fairly, swiftly and with the least possible force, for the sake of the greatest possible freedom of all. Other functions may be added on or taken away from governmental jurisdiction from time to time as political moods or fashions change (of late a furious debate has been raging worldwide over whether government ought to have ‘developmental’ functions, for instance); this one must never be shirked or denied. And since the public and private spheres of life cannot be fully separated in practice – everything I do causes some pleasure and some harm to somebody, often even without my knowing or intention – which freedoms must be restricted and how much must always be determined (and the rules changed from time to time) by peaceful and informed debate, negotiation, compromise and graceful acceptance of the majority view, so long as reasonable minority views are not entirely ignored or trampled upon: this is theoretically the art of muddling through, or democracy by another name, and historically we haven’t been able to find a less harmful, less painful way of ordering our lives; that is why democracy, warts and all, will have my vote every time.

But governments will be able to make little headway until millions of ordinary parents realize and practise daily the art of good parenting – which means equally that they teach their children (by faith and example, not mere words) how to be free, and how important discipline is to achieving that freedom, and preserving it from the depredations of others who have not been equally well brought up. Instead, all I can see is that parents are fanatically insistent that their children toe the line without demur round the clock at home – no matter how absurd or misguided their demands are – while turning a blind eye to how rudely, crudely, unsocially the same children are behaving on the streets and in the workplace, as long as one’s immediate relatives and neighbours don’t complain about it! I know all countries are not equally bad, but this is what I can see in some of the biggest and most significant countries of the contemporary world, including my own!

With the average parent either dumb or callous, governments cannot but let things slide until ‘progress’ becomes a mirage and social life becomes unliveable: such a denouement would be bad enough. What is worse, when things really begin to go from bad to worse, many good men, inside and out of governments, feel more and more tempted to try and restore discipline with a heavy hand, with a return to this or that form of totalitarianism. Now the problem with totalitarianism is manifold. Firstly, good men might take recourse to it with good intentions and merely as a short-term emergency measure, but a lot of bad men invariably take over very soon (being far more numerous, cunning as well as motivated!), and ensure that the ‘emergency’ measures are made permanent – because (I said this before) men are far more commonly interested in dominating and exploiting their fellow men than in doing them some good (let alone setting them free) – this is one truth about mankind that good communists and other idealists have always found hard to swallow, naïvely as they have always trusted in the ‘essential goodness’ of man – and besides, power is so strong a drug that it invariably corrupts all but the best of men, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The names of leaders who started out with lofty ideals and became mere despots – often unnoticeably, and often refusing till the end to believe that they had become rotten! – are legion. Even children can go that way, if William Golding knew what he was talking about in Lord of the Flies. That is why the best of men and women refuse to take up the reins of government, or give up after a while. Witness the examples of Joan of Arc and Gandhi, read Kipling’s priceless story called The Miracle of Puran Bhagat, and reflect upon the ideal of rajarshi – the saintly king – espoused by Plato and Tagore. That must remain the ideal of governmental authority always: then, though the political process might keep on churning up clowns, monsters and charlatans with tedious regularity, we might occasionally come up with an Asoka or a Lincoln, whom even Karl Marx felt compelled to call a great man. Democracy offers the highest chances for this to happen again and again; that is why I shall always speak in its favour despite being only too sadly aware of its many shortcomings. I shall also keep praying that people become wiser in choosing their leaders, and the law makes it more and more difficult for rotten eggs to get into public office. As of now, it is everywhere skewed heavily in their favour!

The second problem with totalitarianism (even when, as I am assuming here, it is resorted to by good men with honest intentions, which is rarely the case) is that the rulers try to ‘cure’ the disease of anarchy and decadence by approaching the question of social reconstruction with the mentality of a drill-sergeant in army boot camp, unable to foresee how that would not only take all the fun, adventure and creativity out of life but, by building up titanic pressures of reaction, end up sooner or later in a massive explosion and ruin. Discipline is good, but only so that its subject might learn to outgrow it in favour of self-discipline (I repeatedly tell my students that a good teacher is he who makes himself progressively unnecessary) – remember, freedom is the goal. That is why Vivekananda used to say it is good to be born in a church, but miserable to die in one: it shows that the person concerned had lost sight of the true aim, which is complete freedom for the realized higher self – moksha.

The third problem with discipline is that, in the event that the ‘massive explosion’ I mentioned in the previous paragraph does not materialize (though the hunger for freedom normally becomes acute in most men under prolonged tyranny – thank God! – some nations are simply too weak-kneed to rebel even against the worst forms of oppression and abuse) it may reduce a whole populace to absolute cynicism, servility and apathy. This is especially a grave danger when discipline (whether it be in a family, a school or a whole nation) is enforced solely and ruthlessly for the benefit of the enforcer, regardless of the harm it does to those who are being disciplined. I believe this is what can be diagnosed as historically the worst social-psychological malaise that has been troubling India for upwards of a thousand years. Our ancient fathers very deeply appreciated the necessity of discipline for the achievement of freedom, and laid down the law (dharma, not to be confused with religion in the western sense) accordingly for every man, woman and child, householder and sanyasi, king and scholar, young and old, rich and poor. Not everything was good and fair about it, of course; no law is entirely good, and certainly not for all time, because laws are after all made by men (even men who are convinced that they are directly inspired by God), and all men are fallible, but it was wise and farsighted on the whole. Recall that the same law always made special provision for the enlightened – for a true saint there was to be no caste, no rituals, no law save that dictated by his own soul! Unfortunately, with the passage of centuries, this law ossified into a dead and horrible system, existing for its own sake, increasingly corrupted for the benefit of its administrators alone (chiefly Hindu upper-caste, well-off, elderly males); worse, it joined hands with the greed, arrogance and caprice of an endless succession of tyrants, grinding the great bulk of the populace into abject suffering without hope, and breeding a vast class of self-seeking, time-serving, sycophantic opportunists (priests, teachers, petty bureaucrats, financiers, traders, zamindars and all kinds of commission-earning middlemen) who realized that they could do whatever they liked with the masses as long as they dutifully collected the taxes for their masters and publicly kowtowed to them ad nauseam without shame and self-doubt, all the while cunningly cheating and undermining those masters too whenever they dared – because though they feared many, they respected nobody. That is the situation that every new invading power discovered, and learnt to manipulate and live with, the Mughals and the British included. However intellectually unfashionable or politically incorrect it might be to point this out today, this is precisely the reason why the British found it so easy to conquer and subjugate India: the masses, numerous and diverse as they were, never mattered, and the ‘classes’ could always be bought off. Again and again India was won with threats and bribes, besides trickery; very little military action was needed, or farsighted policy.

When the ‘national movement’ first began to stir (very largely inspired by western examples), our thought-leaders faced a herculean two-fold task: to remould our own habits of mind (‘modernization’) and simultaneously to build up a powerful resistance to foreign domination, with the ultimate purpose of getting rid of it. It was an infuriating and thankless job, to put it mildly: no wonder that so many good people burnt out with frustration, or lost their way in the confusion, and quarrelled bitterly among themselves over both ends and means! They had to unite their fellow-men and inspire them with a sense of common patriotism to hate the oppression and exploitation and fight it; simultaneously they were keen to take all that was good (they all saw much that was good, though they were not equally candid about admitting it!) from the westerners and indigenise it, while trying desperately all the time to avoid absorbing ‘westernism’ lock, stock and barrel, which would merely overwhelm us culturally, and rob us of the strength and self-confidence that was vital to winning back our freedom. So they were always fighting on many fronts all at once, against those who belittled and dominated us because they believed they were ‘superior’, and against those who wanted us to bury our heads in the sands of dead habit and atavism, against those (Indian and British) who thought that everything good came from the west and those who thought that all good things had been created in this country. Some continued to worship blind obedience as a supreme virtue (hoping it would somehow preserve our traditional ways from contamination and subversion), while some decided to celebrate irresponsible defiance and rebellion as an end in itself. Needless to say both types were misguided, and between them they made up the dominant majority of leaders. Quite predictably, they left behind a terrible mess alongwith with the undeniably tremendous achievement of political freedom. They dared to start off with democracy in a vast, poor, illiterate country in utter disarray, so no one can fault them for not being optimistic, yet they did not sufficiently stress the importance of the rule of law; they guaranteed universal suffrage and Fundamental Rights for all but did not insist on universal education in the basic do’s and and don’ts of good citizenship (as one consequence, every elected leader went on believing that he had been endowed with a right to behave like the worst sort of king!); they preached loftily about the sovereignty of the people yet perpetuated all kinds of iniquity through bad laws carried over from colonial times and an unreformed, elitist bureaucracy which soon learnt to oppress the ‘people’ as thoroughly as the foreign rulers in close collaboration with an increasingly venal and nepotistic political class, whose incompetence in office was shamed only by its utter lack of long-term nationalistic concerns. And they left behind a puerile dream that ‘progress’ could be achieved with machines and by machines – no great effort was needed to build the right sort of men who would be able to make, repair, and use the machines the right way for the right purposes (that is why professions like engineering, accountancy and medicine suddenly acquired a special aura, while the humanities lost their way and started becoming irrelevant, and therefore despised). Rather, they convinced all those with a trace of worldly ambition in their veins that the same combination of having the ‘right connections’ and shameless sycophancy and palm-greasing and backstabbing and heartless denigration and exploitation of the weak remains the key to success in this world, rather than patient hard work and finely-honed skills and trust in the grace of God. Now, half a century later, we have started getting excited about the vital need for ‘human resource development’. Cry, the beloved country!

And don’t you believe for a second that we have really begun to understand what ‘human resource development’ means – not by a long chalk! If anything, things are going from bad to worse before our eyes. Even one generation ago, for instance, there was much more discipline – of the good sort – at least in our middle class, both in the way parents brought up their children and in the way they conducted themselves as adults in society. We are so keen to appear smart by denigrating all our forefathers’ follies, inhibitions and misconceptions that we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Discipline is to be seen in a thousand different things people do: how softly and courteously they talk, how gracefully they admit to their mistakes, how clean their roads are, how punctually they go to work, how regularly they pay taxes, how honestly their government spends that money, whether and how much they save for a rainy day, how carefully they drive, how sincerely examiners mark answerscripts and doctors write case histories, whether people take a lot of exercise and eat well to live healthily, how much care they take of their forests and wild life, how prompt their disaster-management services (police, fire, ambulances) are, how mindful they are about preventing waste of scarce resources like water and fuels, how attentive they are to the needs of those who cannot help themselves, how seriously they take quality control and original scientific research and preservation of their artistic heritage, and a thousand other things like that. Now at this moment (late 2003) urban India might be experiencing an economic boom of sorts – the government in power is in fact drumming the exultant message into the middle-class voter’s mind that he’s never had it so good! – but the sober fact remains that by all the indices mentioned above, this country is very swiftly going to the dogs, and the educated people in power don’t seem to care two hoots, or have simply stopped thinking about such things altogether, because they have become too frightening, and perhaps they are desperately praying that if only there are enough goodies (from shampoos and potato chips to cellphones and airconditioners and jewellery) to go around, somehow all those awful problems will simply go away.

Do you think they will? Is it possible that luxury for a small handful can coexist peacefully over the long run with either an ocean of poverty all around or good taste or preservation of the natural environment? Is it not already clear enough to all but the mindless that blind pursuit of material luxury, with all moral scruples and aesthetic standards thrown to the winds, is not only rapidly making human bodies and minds dysfunctional (witness the soaring graphs of divorce, child abuse, juvenile violence and eating disorders, neglect of the old, suicide and deaths due to strokes and heart disease) but society itself is under siege – because no civilized society can survive when everybody (including teachers and doctors and policemen and judges and artists) starts living by the maxim of ‘anything goes’? And haven’t we reached the nadir of degradation already when parents are fanatically drumming the mantra of success by hook or by crook into their children’s minds only so that those children can grow up to buy them the affluence and influence and status that they never managed to attain on their own? Can a country led by beggars, carpetbaggers, philistines and goons survive, let alone lead the world some day, regardless of what some superficial economic indices indicate?

The reason for that rather long detour into the current state of affairs in India is that I would like to stress with all the conviction at my command that it all boils down to a question of the right sort of discipline, or the lack of it. And if that detour sounded very gloomy, in sharp contrast to the relative optimism evident in the chapter on nationalism, I must excuse myself with the observation that though my heart wants to stay hopeful, my mind cannot find the wherewithal to pin those hopes on, from what I can see happening all around me. May your generation at last begin to appreciate that while freedom is the goal, there is no quick, easy, painless – that is to say, undisciplined – road to freedom. This must be appreciated at all levels, from the personal to the political, and in all spheres, from the most practical to the most speculative. It is because she wants to be as free as possible that a citizen of a good democracy tolerates a very great deal of oddity in her fellow-men, and even likes them despite their oddities; also, it is because she loves freedom that she submits herself to a great deal of discipline (which is another way of saying, takes responsibility) – attending very mindfully, day in and day out, to the job that fetches her daily bread without a supervisor constantly breathing down her neck. It is out of a still stronger yearning for freedom that the old-fashioned hermit subjects himself to an austere (disciplined) lifestyle, knowing that he is thereby lightening his worldly burdens and getting ready for the ultimate happiness – the peace that passeth understanding. I will be a stern master to myself because I hate above all else to call any man my master, and therefore I will not contribute my mite to the growing indiscipline that makes hard taskmasters seem more and more desireable! This is why in politics they say the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

It requires constant self-monitoring and self-restraint at every step. And the dumbest notion that parents can pass on to their children is that the need for discipline is only temporary: they can let their hair down and live it up the moment they cross the threshold of college and get a job! I will not cheat, for example, either as a student or as a businessman or professional of any sort, because I will only be setting a very bad example for lots of others to follow, and I know very well I will not like it when those others make me a victim of their cheating! (if you are growing up to be cynical of anything that sounds like ‘moral science’, I would urge you to read economics a bit. While dumb undergraduate-level theory – the sort that pundits habitually use while advising their political masters! – draws all inferences on the assumption of ceteris paribus, ‘other things remaining equal’, sophisticated models used in game theory demonstrate in unambiguous mathematical terms how, while it is quite true that you might indeed gain heavily if you alone are cheating in a game where everybody else plays fairly, the much more likely issue is that others will quickly learn to cheat too, and then things become much more risky for all concerned – to the extent that a fishy poker player can be shot dead by an angry fellow cowboy in a fit of rage: isn’t that what we see happening at the most exalted level of geopolitics all the time?) Besides, I must grow up quickly to understand that ultimately I can cheat nobody but myself – a student who has wriggled through examinations all his life by foul means will sooner or later be caught out as an incompetent in adult life, and worse still, he cannot trust anybody (doctor, lawyer, accountant, banker, engineer, his own son) because he is inclined to believe that they are all quacks and crooks, like himself. And so we make a nightmare world, smothering ourselves in a vast cobweb of laws and contracts and armies of lawyers and courts and musclemen and policemen and counsellors to enforce obedience to them and save us from being cheated by our fellow-men, and never succeeding in feeling safe, because at heart we know it cannot be done: Gandhi used to laugh at some people’s efforts to make laws so good that men would be forced to be good. It is absurd for a collective to be good when almost everybody has privately stopped having any qualms about being bad. ‘What a tangled web we weave/ when first we practise to deceive!

Let’s forget the outside world of others now: we cannot really reform people, as I have said before, except maybe tangentially by example. And anyway, I have been insisting all through that ultimately others do not matter, except insofar as they affect your own well-being (there is no self-contradiction between philanthropy and enlightened selfishness; you avoid hurting others and try to do as much good to them as you can while not letting them hurt you – deliberately or otherwise – only so that you can live your own life well. Even if you decide to give up your life for the sake of another, or many others, it must be a quiet, deliberate, absolutely personal decision based on the conviction that nothing would make you happier. If that attitude makes a lot of silly people call you names, let them; they don’t matter either! You will discover by and by that utterly ‘selfish’ people as described above do the least harm, if not also the most good to the world). Where, for your own greater good, should you draw the line between freedom and discipline?

You cannot even start acting sanely unless you accept the paradoxes that are woven into the very warp and woof of our worldly existence. You are a body as well as a mind, a private as well as a public entity, for most of your life both a grown-up and a junior, with practical as well as spiritual concerns (short-term as well as long-term ones), very strong likes as well as dislikes (unless you belong to the rare few, you are never even perfectly sure about them either!)…and the whole trouble lies in the fact that either we forget one or the other completely, or we can rarely remember not to overemphasize any one at the expense of its paired opposite. Besides, the circumstances in which we are born and grow up make things difficult for different individuals in different ways. To take just two examples of what I mean, consider how it is far more important for someone with a family history of cardiac disease to stay off smoking than someone who is not similarly encumbered, and how someone who likes to drink but hates wild drunken behaviour is constrained to avoid socializing in a country where people not only expect to get drunk at parties but insist that everybody must do so. Also, at particular stages in life and in particular lines of work certain special kinds (and degrees) of discipline are called for: students must do a lot of reading and writing by the clock daily for many years, and soldiers must not only rise at daybreak, parade and run cross-country with heavy backpacks but learn to obey their superiors’ orders unquestioningly and at once, so long as they have signed up voluntarily and it is visible to them that the said superiors are doing exactly the same. One must learn to obey before one can learn to command. As one grows in experience and seniority – the student becomes a professor, the private becomes a colonel – one may expect the constraints to ease off a little, but will discover, too, that other, newer constraints have been imposed in their place. As a rule, and particularly in wartime, generals spend many more sleepless nights than the ranks, though it is the latter that die like flies at the Front: that’s life!

But there are certain kinds of discipline that everyone but the feeble-minded and geniuses must observe assiduously if they want to live long, healthy, relatively trouble-free and rewarding lives. At different places in this book I have already mentioned certain kinds of responsibility which must be taken in connection with your safety, health, studies, professional work, money and even love if you want to avoid sundry irritations and dangers. The trouble with most of us is that we think living with that kind of discipline would make life boring. It is true, indeed, that human beings have strong cravings for both danger and security, and when they have too much of the one they begin to devalue it and yearn for the other. And since our natural appetite for thrills is not satisfied by the kind of tame and orderly lives most of us live for most of the time in modern urban, school- or office bound environments, we are all the time – adults and teenagers alike, some more openly and flagrantly than others – hankering after ‘chills and spills’, despite knowing at the back of our minds that a few minutes of hysterical excitement aimed at killing the boredom of our ‘normal’ lives will have to be paid for sooner or later with months and years of unexciting remorse, or worse. So the more intrepid and well-heeled among us set out to climb mountains or become ‘gentleman-criminals’, while the majority satisfy themselves with rollercoster rides and reckless driving and splurging on credit cards and clandestine romances and gorging at parties without end – until it is time to pay the bills: in terms of missed careers, ruined health, broken marriages, crippling accidents, bankruptcy proceedings and prison terms! The tamasic temper of mind, as Hindu psychology calls it – a combination of some of the deadly sins I mentioned earlier, to wit sloth, gluttony, avarice, lust and envy, which I believe is the commonest temper (only the proportions of the said weaknesses vary), also makes it very difficult for most of us to subject ourselves willingly to any kind of sustained discipline, even if we have been told a thousand times that it will be for our own good. In India especially, perhaps some sort of explanation may be sought in the fact that we do not find those who thus advise us – most commonly parents and teachers in childhood and ‘leaders’ in later life – very convincing, because we can somehow sense that they are for the most part very tamasic themselves, and are merely mouthing high-sounding maxims which they have never themselves believed in and obeyed! So we grow up learning only that the right kind of living is repeating the same hollow maxims to those who are coming after us, while never trying to live by them and see how they can help to make our lives far better in every sense.

Managing freedom along with responsibility is troublesome precisely because there is something good yet perverse and innate in human nature: unless we are absolutely craven, it comes naturally to us to defy all attempts to discipline us, and to throw tantrums in the process of defying, even if we understand somewhere deep inside that what the disciplining authority is saying is fundamentally right, and obeying will conduce to our own greater long-term good. Teachers and parents and policemen have to tackle this problem constantly in the course of their daily work, and because they themselves are for the most part weak, impatient and unloving people (as nearly all of us are!), and often grossly overworked, they do the job very imperfectly, and either through over-exertion or through apathy create a lot of misfits and rebels who make life difficult for themselves and everybody else. I don’t think there is any large-scale cure for it at the social level: but most certainly you can do a lot in the private sphere of your life to avoid the problem I have defined. Remember always to sacrifice the immediate, minor freedom for the sake of the greater one that is to be enjoyed for the price of present discipline, even if that means temporarily obeying some external authority – avoiding late night parties because mummy says so, or studying hard for the coming examination when you might have watched a movie instead, not buying an expensive dress in fashion because you know the fashion will change in a year’s time, and people who really count don’t notice passing fashions anyway, and it would be far more useful to invest the same money in, say, insurance; not picking a quarrel with a teacher who, you realize, ought to know better, because it’s not worth the trouble. I hope you have already learnt, from innumerable fights with your mother over who will finally have her way in all sorts of utterly trivial things, that we very often lose sight of what we really want, what would be really good for us, in our passionate but vain efforts to assert ourselves. Forget the egotism that blinds one to one’s real interests; exercise your reason and compassion instead, and you’ll emerge a winner nearly every time, and even if you lose out now and then, it won’t hurt too badly!

Above everything else is the problem that traditionally and almost everywhere discipline has been presented as a wholly negative thing, as merely a restraint on our freedoms. Too little emphasis has been put on teaching ordinary folks its vital positive dimension – namely, that it is the sine qua non for genuine, lasting, meaningful freedom for all, collectively as well as individually. Worse still (I got this insight from the great psycho-analyst and humanistic thinker Erich Fromm) we have discussed too much for aeons about freedom from (from physical privation, tyranny, fear, restrictions on choices regarding careers, movement, occupation, marriage, religious beliefs…), and given too little attention to the question of freedom to. And what might that mean? Well, any listing of rights and freedoms is in a sense a negative exercise – it only underlines the injustices and indignities that people must not be subjected to, spells out only the minimum necessary conditions for their development, specifies the powers they may wield and the privileges they may enjoy. If we think about it, such an exercise stops short of indicating what the author thinks people should do with those rights and freedoms and privileges if and when they have been won, what sort of world they should create for themselves using all those newly-acquired powers. It is true that all reformist thinkers, writers and activists have a certain (perhaps nebulous) mental prevision of that world, but they are so preoccupied with the difficulty and urgency of winning those cherished freedoms that they have rarely bothered to dwell at length on what happens the morning after: merely assuming, I suppose, that things will take care of themselves once the shackles have been taken off and the unbounded, pent-up energies of the oppressed people have been released. Indeed, many of them have fought shy of prescriptive philosophy – it had acquired such a bad name! – thus, to my mind, abdicating a very great part of their responsibility. If philosophers don’t teach the people what to think, advertisement copywriters will, filling millions of crude and immature minds (I am not being patronizing here – all sellers of goods and ideas live by the knowledge that ‘there’s a sucker born every minute’!) with the ‘latrine slush of civilization’, to use Koestler’s shocking but vivid phrase. The truth is, as we have been very slowly and painfully learning over and over again through the most permissive of centuries (the 20th), that freedom without a sense of commitment and constructive purpose among the masses of newly-free means nothing, or nothing desireable at least. Thus, newly independent colonies have dissolved within decades in anarchy and civil war (and it will take a very bold and blind ‘progressive’ to claim that the people of, say, sub-Saharan Africa are feeling significantly happier now than under British or French rule. That is of course, a terribly politically incorrect statement, but since when has truth cared for correctness?) A hundred and forty years after Lincoln and forty years after Martin Luther King a lot of Afro-Americans are busy tarnishing their collective image with drug abuse, street-gang crime and widespread apathy to self-development – not everything you read in the papers is concocted by white racists! – and millions of ‘free’ children in the west have become dropouts and delinquents – a horde of addlepated creatures with no future worth the name, nothing to give to the world, a menace and a burden to the societies which must support them. It is because of the lack of ideals and a sense of purpose that the free world’s only heroes are movie- and sports ‘stars’ or cartoon-strip characters, and Baywatch became the most popular TV-show on the planet. And what about the many millions of middle- and upper class women, liberated to various degrees already, in all relatively open societies from India to America? – At this point I beg my female readers, yourself first among them, to read the following lines not keeping it uppermost in their minds that it is a man who is saying this (I wish some women did), not deciding the issue on the basis of whether what I am saying is pleasant to hear, but to judge calmly and rationally whether it is true or false, tested against their own knowledge and experience. I know of many, many honorable exceptions, of course, and I’m sure there are many times more whom I do not know – but isn’t it only too true that the majority of such women are only trivializing and vulgarizing their freedoms by misusing, abusing or simply not using them? Aren’t too many women, in spite of good education and independent jobs, still kowtowing to the norms of a male-dominated society because at heart they continue to be slavishly attached to ancient superstitions? I am sure that in India that at least partly explains why the execrable custom of dowry has proved so difficult to eradicate, or why everywhere the great majority of marital-rape cases go unreported still. Aren’t too many women playing into the hands of that same patronizing and exploitative mindset when they starve themselves to achieve the ‘ideal’ body, go bankrupt by splurging on clothes, cosmetics and beauty-care and dream of becoming hip-swinging marionettes on the catwalk or silver screen? Haven’t great numbers of them decided that ‘freedom’ means only the right to swear like men, smoke and dress and drink like men, move about and fornicate and make money as obsessively as men do, and that is all that matters: that all talk of higher purpose is laughable and meaningless? Now that technology, prosperity, the welfare state and a little more consideration from their men folk have taken much of the humiliation and drudgery out of the lives of housewives, haven’t millions of them chosen to become fat and useless couch potatoes glued to the TV screen, or devoted to a lifetime of ‘bitching’ (a disgusting but graphic word a feminist woman friend taught me!) at the club, party or swimming pool? Is it not a fact that too many of them want to have their cake and eat it too – to expand their freedom and power without giving up the privileges once automatically yielded to them by gentlemen in the age of chivalry, to have the men with whom they insist on equality surrender their seats without question on the bus as soon as ‘ladies’ arrive on the scene? Aren’t jealousy and spite among women still factors as significant in thwarting their progress as all the iniquitous mores ever devised by men? Aren’t well-off society women infinitely callous to the plight of their less privileged sisters? Doesn’t it call for reflection that so many women, free and rich and addicted to the consumerist lifestyle, the culture of the shopping mall, are doing enormous damage both to social justice and to nature? If it is granted that poets, artists, philosophers, lawgivers, scientists and social workers represent the flower of human culture and the repository of all the hopes of civilization, and if we take due note of the fact that even amidst the grossest inequality and oppression women have always contributed a not insignificant part of their number (remember Meerabai, George Sand and Florence Nightingale), can we say that liberation has swelled the ranks of creative women as much as it might have been expected to? Whether they like it or not, it is only by answering those questions to themselves and deciding what to do about those answers that women can decide the future of women’s liberation hopefully.

I feel too many of our neo-liberate young women (they are among those who most keenly aspire for freedom) are too lightly dismissing all our customs, age-old beliefs and mores, all the grace and wisdom of their grandmothers’ traditional discipline! – and their lives are definitely not culturally richer or politically more secure in consequence. Not everything about custom is foolish; even silly and out-of-date superstitions have serious and rational roots worth knowing, and not all the grandmothers in the world are more idle, more ignorant, more stupid than their granddaughters! If I am a bit of a conservative, it is because I worry that in the mad rush for what is modern and brazen and fashionable, too many of today’s women have begun to discard much that is valuable about tradition without ever having made the effort to understand it; that people who have not been prepared for freedom through long and hard personal suffering (and reflection upon that suffering) will almost inevitably abuse freedom when it comes, harming themselves more than others in the long run.

I am going to say this now: freedom itself, noble and chimerical as it is, cannot be an ultimate goal. Indeed, absolute freedom, even for one individual, does not make any sense, let alone any desirable sense, in this world as it has been made; besides, I would urge you to reflect that no one is so free (at least in the mind) as the confirmed lunatic, but we would not like to be in his shoes, would we? Freedom can be at most a means to attaining some higher (essentially spiritual, if it is to give lasting satisfaction –) end. It is only when we feel our strongest longings – for survival, for security and dignity, for the safety of our loved ones, for the fulfillment of our creative urges – being intolerably thwarted by deprivation and oppression that we begin to cry for freedom, and so intense becomes that desire under prolonged oppression that we mistake it for an end in itself. But, as Tagore said, being pulled out of the soil by the roots cannot possibly signify a meaningful freedom for the tree. It is only when the soil becomes toxic or barren or otherwise incapable of supporting healthy life that the gardener thinks of removing the tree, and that only for the purpose of transplanting it gently to a richer soil, so that it can reach higher, spread its branches wider, and bear brighter flowers and better fruit.

In the course of their long struggle for liberation women, like many other disadvantaged groups, must re-learn the virtues of sympathy and restraint, gentleness and foresight. The means we adopt to secure our ends inevitably shape – and often distort or corrupt – those ends themselves; against this possibility any mass of people fighting for fulfillment must guard zealously. The greatest danger of a protracted struggle lies in the fact that we become increasingly like the enemy we are fighting, because we adopt his strategies to defeat him, we imbibe his vices and failings; we start unconsciously adopting his yardsticks of success and failure, power and glory, right and wrong. And so, eventually, when the revolution is complete, we discover that we have made a world hardly distinguishable from the old: nothing has changed but the fact that oppressors and oppressed have changed places, or sometimes only labels. And then we wonder, with deep chagrin, whether it was all worth fighting for!

The wise know that we need to be free only so that we can try with our utmost effort, unrestrained, to become what we potentially are: beings who are so far above the stereotype of the ‘common man’ that they attract the labels of supermen and angels and gods. Reflect: when you think of the archetypal common man, and contrast him with the greatest achievers in every field of endeavour, doesn’t it take your breath away that they all belong to the same species? Think not just about Olympic medallists and Nobel Prize winners but about how so many of the greatest men who have walked the earth have worked, with very considerable success, to become ‘universal men’- simultaneously exceptional athletes, military heroes, rulers, artists, scientists and even good parents and friends and saints at the same time! So many of them rose from the humblest backgrounds, too, burdened by severe handicaps of all sorts, to reach for the stars. Marcus Aurelius was an emperor while Aesop was a slave: can you tell the difference by going through their works? Lives of great men all remind us/ we can make our lives sublime/ and departing, leave behind us/ footprints on the sands of time. Isn’t it the greatest pity therefore, that the vast majority of people (including well-off, supposedly educated and reasonably free people) choose to remain ordinary all their lives, solely for lack of energy, imagination, courage – and discipline?

The ancient Indian science of yoga aimed to train every man in precisely that kind of discipline of the body and mind by dint of which we could not only discriminate between trivial, transient, unhealthy pleasures (temptations) and the real thing but also find the courage, energy, imagination and patience to aspire for the latter, and enjoy it to the hilt when it is attained. Today some clever people have begun to find out that yoga is neither obsolete nor for mystics alone: it is equally useful and indispensable to business executives, politicians, artists, sportsmen, scientists and householders who aspire to real success in their own spheres of endeavour. I would call that the greatest re-discovery of the postmodern era, and I wish ordinary folks by the hundred million would learn about its necessity and efficacy faster. Even as a student, you will benefit enormously if you acquire this discipline for yourself – in the form of increased concentration, sharpened memory, heightened alertness yet reduced stress levels, ability to ignore malicious wagging tongues and ingratitude of the basest sort, greater control of all undesireable impulses (anger and impatience, to name just two), more restful sleep, a fitter body…you name it. And it will teach you unnoticeably that moderation in all things is truly the key to bliss. It is no mean happiness to be located in the mean, says the Bard in The Merchant of Venice.

Think hard about this: why should I be moderate in indulging my appetites? – Because overdoing any one thing will not only make me jaded very quickly, but also hurt many other interests, and that loss will be deducted from the sum of my satisfactions. In this sense the law of karma is not an esoteric theory but simply a truthful and unavoidable description of the way the world works. If I habitually overeat (and eat badly) the chances are very high that I will not only lose the appetite for good food but begin to suffer from perennial indigestion and all kinds of serious ailments stemming directly from that, from kidney damage to ulcers and diabetes and heart disease: so I will pay by living uneasily all the time, and losing out much precious time and attention which I could have given profitably to other things, such as studies or business or travel, and eventually growing old sooner than necessary and shortening my lifespan. If I constantly chase the momentary thrills offered by ‘romantic’ or voluptuary liaisons, I will equally certainly never find true love, and become embittered with life and all mankind; those are the wages of ‘sin’ rightly understood. If I chase money madly all the time, I shall not only miss out on the myriad pleasures that life offers even to the man who does not have much money – fun with the family, reading good literature, playing games with friends, making a pretty garden, cultivating some fine art, engaging in scientific research, being a good neighbour, going to sleep every night with a clean conscience – but also bring trouble upon myself by damaging my health through stress and making a lot of enemies, which is almost inevitable in the process of making big money. If I waste my youth having ‘fun’, there will be hell to pay afterwards, even if I can avoid bringing my life to an abrupt end through some kind of excess (drugs or violent company, for instance) in youth itself. On the other hand, even if in my youth my friends snigger at me for being a fuddy-duddy, I will stick to my self-imposed discipline because I can see farther ahead into the future than they, and I wish to enjoy my life for a far longer stretch (even finding out all the ways one can enjoy oneself and which ones suit one’s temperatment and capabilities takes a long time to find out), and I know that I will have the last laugh. Let those smart friends compare notes three or four decades from now! I don’t want to regret when it is too late to mend things, as the great majority regrets.

I used the first-person singular advisedly in the previous lines. I mentioned this once before: I have gained far more, materially and otherwise, from self-imposed discipline in every walk of life, from studies to earning to saving to love affairs and social relationships than whatever ‘talents’ I was born with. To put it in another way, none of those talents could have helped much if I hadn’t been able to put them to use through routine, alert daily labour over many, many years. I became self-reliant unusually early by today’s standards – so many people seem to prefer being babied all their lives, and even in middle-age cannot imagine not being led by the nose by wife and children and colleagues and convention! – Fromm says people actually fear nothing more than freedom – and I can still say that I don’t regret much that I have done in the last twenty-five years, or that I am sorry for having missed much. The funny thing is that people who once called me mad or feckless cannot now figure out how I became ‘successful’ by their petty-bourgeois yardsticks and are burning with jealousy because they will not take into account my long penance, if I may call it so, or learn anything constructive from it! I do thank God’s grace over and over again, though: for I have seen all my life how so many people, often in many ways far more gifted than I am, have never been able to achieve anything worthwhile at all because they were always so distracted and confused that they never could sort out their priorities and concentrate on the few things that were really important, and I myself have felt over and over again the insidious tug of sloth and sick hurry and divided aims and tedium and despair and bad counsel that can ruin anybody’s life, and it hasn’t been easy to reconcile myself to the fact that nobody gets everything in one lifetime, so one must not waste time and energy hankering after things that will always remain beyond his grasp but make the best of what has been given to him and be able to enjoy the fruits of his labour gratefully. I hope you will be equally lucky: more, if possible, because I know I haven’t succeeded in disciplining myself as much as I would have liked, and that is the main reason why I haven’t achieved a lot of good things yet, and I don’t know whether I have enough time left to attain my goal.

A word on the feeble-minded and geniuses here.They cannot, or are not willing to follow rules lifelong like the rest of us. We shall have something more to say on this in the next chapter. Suffice it to say, for now, that for the former there will always have to be either very loving families or psychiatrists and nurses and special homes to take care of their infirmities and their uncontrollable tendency towards excess, while the latter will always keep making their own rules – and breaking them at will over and over again – in the process thoroughly upsetting the world and changing it drastically: usually for the better. Geniuses do not wish to adapt to the world as they find it, so they exert their vast energy and creative powers to mould it into a shape more to their liking, through writing immortal poetry or making epoch-making discoveries and inventions or founding new religions or establishing empires through conquest and inspired governance. We should not try to straitjacket men of genius with the kind of rules that ought to bind the great mass of mankind, for there is considerable evidence to suspect that there is a very close connection between their unbalanced ways and their ‘divine spark’; discipline the one and you might destroy the other. We might wish that some men of genius – like Napoleon – had been restrained before they could wreak immeasurable havoc upon the lives of millions, but notice also that we still cannot but marvel at the enormous jumps ahead that civilization took under their ministrations! Also, I personally incline to believe that firstly, we do too much as it is to misjudge and thwart genius (because it frightens us – most teachers, being utterly common human beings, have nightmares about having potential Shelleys and Galileos in class!), and that genius need not by definition be unbalanced: some of the men I admire most, such as Tagore, despite their unquestionably immense and beneficial creative potentials, have managed to live long, stable, and sternly self-disciplined lives. In any case, we needn’t bother overmuch about genius: it is usually quite capable of taking care of itself. We need only to ensure two things – the feebleminded (including those whose failings modern-day psychiatrists give fancy names to sound sophisticated and expensive – multiple personality disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders and attention-deficiency disorders and suchlike) must not get into positions of high authority, where they can indulge sick desires or serve as stooges for very unscrupulous and shadowy men (such things have often happened with kings), and no one must indulge the illusion that merely being ill-mannered, whimsical and destructive qualifies one to be a genius. Too many people have troubled the world by rising to power on the strength of being merely far more uncouth, unscrupulous and unkind than the rest of us.

To conclude, then: appreciate the inseparable connection between knowing why freedom is important, wanting to be free and the need to take responsibility, in the strictly private sphere of life and as a social being – it is the most valuable lesson we can learn in our lives. So far as living in any orthodox, unthinking, hyper-critical society (such as ours) is concerned, any society where most of those who are only too keen always to lecture you and restrain you care not at all about your welfare, (most of them, ‘close friends’ and ‘near relatives’ in particular, are likely to be far away or very busy when you are in any kind of real need!) I will most certainly advise you to break a thousand piffling rules every day – rules about food and clothes and music and books and studies and careers and love-affairs and how to talk to people and so on – and find out for yourself what the consequences are (remembering how the child Vivekananda smoked a hookah to find out how one supposedly ‘lost his caste’ by smoking the wrong hookah, and how his wise father appreciated his daring). The benefits will be two-fold: people will gradually learn to respect you (or fear and avoid you if they are themselves weak characters – let them!) because you are a person who knows her own mind and chooses her own path, and you yourself will learn that breaking lots of rules matters not a whit – in fact, the act of breaking them will fill you with an exhilarating sense of strength and self-confidence, which will be all to the good – while some will prove their worth so forcefully that no one will have to lecture you ever again about the importance of obeying them. As I said once before, the path will be adventurous and enjoyable, but also sometimes fraught with danger, so I will forever worry for you, and pray for your safety, but in the end, it must all be as the Lord has willed. It is stupid and arrogant to imagine ourselves, as parents and teachers, to be wiser than He.

I have made it sound like a very daunting task, so I will leave you with one very powerful word of reassurance. The knowledge of what is right and the strength to do what is right is already there deep inside you: just connect with your spirit and you’ll get it right, no matter how many the snares and how difficult the challenges that life throws before you. Ask and you shall be given, seek and you shall find; knock and the door will be opened to you … it has been promised long ago, and the promise holds forever, for every human being who can work up the courage and the enthusiasm to check out for herself and himself. Inscrutable the Giver of all things might be, He is loving, and not malicious. He wants you to know that you are He!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Rabindranath Tagore: the only modern man I have come close to worshipping

1. Born 1861, died 1941, Nobel Prize (first Indian) for literature 1913 (for Geetanjali in English translation), returned the honour of knighthood to the British Government after the Jallianwallabag massacre of 1919. The only person who wrote two national anthems (for India and Bangladesh).

2. Now recognized not only as an outstanding, prolific and versatile writer and musician but also a very talented painter, stage director, an educationist of rare vision (founded Vishwa Bharati at Shantiniketan with Nobel Prize money to bring the best of the West and the East together in harmony, and make the process of education more rewarding and enjoyable as preparation for a healthy life, not just preparation for livelihoods), an environmentalist long before it became fashionable in the west, a creative social worker (created Palli Shiksha Sadan and encouraged popular scientific education – lokshiksha – which encouraged Nehru to introduce the Community Development Programme with American help in the 1950s), a passionate but broadminded nationalist – he gave the title of Mahatma to Gandhiji (who in turn paid tribute by calling him ‘the Great Sentinel’), yet also strongly disagreed with him over many questions regarding the struggle for Indian independence: like Einstein (with whom he had wide-ranging and profound dialogues concerning many issues of science, religion, philosophy, art and politics), he believed in the cultivation of a universal spirit and being a ‘world citizen’ instead of subscribing to narrow and violent patriotic ideals (as Mussolini was doing in Italy and Hitler in Germany), which, he believed, invariably led to cultural orthodoxy and stagnation, and encouraged hatred, war and misery.

3. Was brought up in the Jorasanko Thakurbari of mid-19th century Calcutta. The family was not only enormously rich and well-connected, both in India and abroad, but for several generations it had produced men and women of rare talent and energy in many different spheres of life, from art to fashion to religion to business, and they were at the forefront of all major cultural experiments in Calcutta (which, being the capital city, was then the centre of British India), from English education to foreign travel to the Brahmo Samaj and the Hindu mela. Rabindranath’s own cultural upbringing was therefore extraordinarily rich and varied (this is very interestingly recollected in Chhelebela and Jibonsmriti), and being a genius, he successfully assimilated ideas and practices from many countries and historical eras to produce his own works. Thus his songs, for example, are set to tunes borrowed not only from various types of Bengali folk music but from many different parts of India, and from Europe. In his philosophy of life, too, he tried to blend everything good that he found from sources as diverse as the Upanishads to 19th-century liberal English ideas.

4. The formal methods of schooling were very rigid and uninteresting in his childhood; he, therefore could never adapt easily to it, and kept changing schools, until he gave them up altogether, and never took a formal degree. Nevertheless his education was vast, intense and meticulous – in childhood his father got him the best and most sincere teachers for everything from music to science to literature to physical exercises, and his work routine was very strict and heavy; in later life he not only read whole libraries on every subject under the sun but learnt enormously from his travels around the world, in the course of which he met and interacted with the greatest thinkers, artists, scientists and statesmen. As a result he became enormously learned. This combined with his infinite creativity produced such a vast and thought-provoking body of written work – poetry, short stories, novels, drama, songs, essays – that hundreds of scholars, Indian and foreign, have taken doctorates and spent their whole lives researching and commenting upon it; and although in a formal sense he remained ‘uneducated’ all his life, kings and presidents bowed to him, and he was honoured with the highest degrees by universities all around the world from America to China; no other 20th century Indian has received so much global recognition, except for Gandhi.

5. In turn he inspired many outstanding Indians, including the great scientists Satyen Bose and Sir J.C. Bose, the mathematician P.C. Mahalanobis (founder of the Indian Statistical Institute), the writer-director-artist Satyajit Ray, Indira Gandhi, and great modern-day authors like Sunil Gangopadhyay and Buddhadev Guha.

6. Though deeply interested in both science and religion, he was a tireless fighter against every kind of hypocrisy, cant, superstition and blind ritualism. He never glorified poverty, but he wrote again and again in glowing terms about all the nobility and simplicity he had seen amidst poverty (his ideal was that of the rajarshi, the royal hermit); at the same time, he condemned the lust for wealth, because he firmly believed that mere accumulation of things – money, houses, cars, clothes, jewellery, land, titles – can never make men either contented or happy; rather, it sows the seeds of jealousy, greed, insecurity, selfishness, fear, frustration, hatred, and ultimately degradation and destruction through disease, madness, crime, riot and war.

7. In his own life, he tried consistently to combine the roles of the ever-joyous poet and the quiet, wise sage. His life was marked with one great tragedy after another (including the untimely deaths of many loved ones), and he was much misunderstood and bitterly ciriticized by many for his beliefs and ideals, yet he remained true to his ‘religion of man’ till the last; as he himself said, it is the greatest of all sins to lose faith in man. Mankind will keep on making horrible mistakes, and show a capacity for the worst possible evils, yet again and again greatness and goodness will be born among men, and the wise and the good will show us the road to a better, happier, more prosperous future. In his address to Oxford University shortly before his death, when the sky was darkened by the terrible storm-cloud of the Second World War, he firmly expressed this faith for the last time: that humanity will prevail.

8. It is noteworthy that more than sixtysix years after his death, Bengalis as a race still identify him as their greatest achiever; rabindrasangeet is not only alive but being experimented with in new styles by many present-day singers, in India and abroad; Rabindra Rachanabali is still the most widely sold of all Bengali works, and many learned people are working to make his works known and better appreciated around the world – from 1998 onwards, for example, Oxford University Press in collaboration with Vishwa Bharati has been releasing authorized English translations of many of his writings for global circulation (and for the benefit of some Bengalis who cannot, or will not read Bengali!). 

9. The enormous richness of his interests and achievements can be seen if one visits the Rabindra Bhavan museum at Shantiniketan or his house in Calcutta, which is now Rabindra Bharati University. Unlike many modern-day ‘successful’ Indians, who imagine that they have achieved something if they blindly copy everything that westerners do, and don’t realize how westerners habitually look down upon them as a result, he was one of those great Indians (like the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Subramanyam Chandrashekhar) who believed he had much to give to both his motherland and the outside world, and earned the world’s lasting respect for his priceless contributions.

I am a voracious reader, debator and thinking man, and I have read things as diverse as the Gita and Plato, Manu and Kalidas, Shakespeare and Milton, Bertrand Russell and Sigmund Freud, Isaac Asimov and J.K. Rowling … and admired an incredible variety of men, from Jesus to Steve Jobs, from Albert Schweitzer to Robert Falcon Scott, from Leonardo da Vinci to Abraham Lincoln, from the Buddha to Gandhi, and I have acknowledged that men can ‘leave footprints on the sands of time’ in myriad ways, and literally countless men have done so down the ages, yet I believe that really knowing and understanding Tagore is everything that anyone anywhere in the world in any age could ever really need … ‘burn the libraries, because all you need is here!’ To me he is, as the magazine called Desh once said, ‘chiropather shongi’. Scholar, writer, poet, singer, dramatist, painter, actor, judoka, ayurvedic practitioner, essayist, patriot, educationist, social worker and reformer, lover, great father and family man, acute businessman, humorist and mystic … a day will come when all the encyclopedias of the world, shorn of their Anglo-American bias, will acknowledge that he was the nearest approximation to the ideal of the ‘universal man’ that the world has ever seen. Nobody in recent history anywhere in the world deserved the title ‘mahamanab’ more than he did. I believe it is an inestimable privilege to have learnt to worship him, and I count it among my life’s greatest achievements that I was once given the opportunity to translate a tiny fraction of his works for English readers worldwide. Any Bengali who thinks today that the new shopping malls and IT sweatshops and the newfangled familiarity with sms text shows how much we have ‘advanced’ in recent times need only to read any part of Tagore’s works, from Geetanjali to the fantasy stories for children to the ‘lokshiksha’ essays to the love songs to the plays which would still be too risqué to show on Doordarshan Bangla today – and, if he or she has a mind to think with and a heart to feel with, can only rue over how far and how amazingly fast we have sunk since Tagore tried to raise us to the highest imaginable peaks of culture.

Friday, June 08, 2007

My take on the chhee chhee arts

For now, I’d only like to make a few points, as lucidly and tersely as I can. Readers, do please read with open and attentive minds. You can get back to me with comments and questions here or at my orkut community, or, if you prefer privacy, by email.

1. Mere nudity is not the same as erotica, and erotica and pornography are not synonymous, and even pornography is not necessarily vulgar or obscene. At least, the same society keeps changing its morals/values/standards/laws on this question – sometimes very sharply and irrationally! – from time to time, which is why so many people today shudder to think of their children accidentally seeing the Khajuraho carvings or reading, say, Kumarasambhava or the Geetagovindam in a language they can understand.
2. At one time, books or movies that seem perfectly harmless today were abused or banned as obscene: witness Lolita or Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Bibar by Samaresh Basu in Bangla! So it would pay us all to keep our minds open. We must at least remember that 95% of parents have never read, seen or thought something over for themselves, and blindly follow local tradition and family habit as the right thing to do.
3. People are also very confused: so parents and even grandparents watch ‘item numbers’ from Bollywood alongwith the children without blushing or batting an eyelid, though I have often found such numbers highly arousing, as well as very vulgar sometimes! The same elders, mind, who loudly complain about ‘our culture’ going to the dogs if a girl is seen merely chatting with her boyfriend at a street corner!
4. We (especially the females among us, both young and not so young) are also terribly hypocritical about our standards, so lots of us loudly proclaim how ‘good’ we are because we never watch or talk about or read ‘such things’, though we are actually very keen to take a peek whenever we think nobody’s looking: check with our ladies’ gossip at their clubs and kitty parties, or find out how many girls rush to sites posted on orkut where you can supposedly see some young, nubile celebrity bathing or having sex. So it’s certainly not a purely male thing, no matter how many girls insist it is!
5. I sometimes think that this hypocrisy is hardwired into our Indian/Hindu folk culture. Where else in the world are people so goody-goody in social intercourse yet unabashedly worship God either as a male genital organ or as someone who made love to 16,000 gopis (at times, as the legend goes, all together!)? Where else is woman nominally worshipped and in practice treated either as a domestic slave and childbearer or tolerated as a good-for-nothing, bossy, vulgar and greedy domestic ornament? In how many countries do ‘good’ boys grow up to bash wives routinely even while forcing them to bear children year after year in vast numbers – whether they are desired or not, and affordable or not?
6. And where else will you find even supposedly educated women accepting all that as normal and good, having decided that the only bad thing is to talk about it, and to have sex freely (though carefully) with those whom they really care about without inhibitions and taboos? Why is it that a perfectly normal and natural practice is regarded as frightening and sick (lots of good and clever people have raised this question: Satyajit Ray in Agantuk, to name just one)? Why is the slightest deviation from the norm (sex outside marriage, multiple partners, partners with widely different ages, same-sex partners, and so on) still regarded with such (affected?) horror and loathing – though most people I have talked to (for at least 30 years!), including those who pretend to be ‘modern-minded’, cannot give me one good reason why they think such things are ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’?

What I was leading up to all this time was this: in such a sex-starved country, people will always be very powerfully lured by pornography and prostitution and suchlike as the only outlets for the (natural and irresistible, and overcharged because starved-!) sex drive. Only, and sadly, it will be done furtively, guiltily and therefore sickly, because we are all determined to keep the whole thing underground and chhee-chhee. And since these things are never wholly satisfactory, people will keep having wild wet dreams and lech after other people’s wives, mothers and daughters (or their male counterparts) – often with unfortunate consequences when things go out of control, as the newspapers never tire of informing us. Lech, mind, never try to love and have sex as a very natural and healthy part of loving!

So far, I have only given a negative justification for pornography and related stuff. But over a pretty long and inquisitive life, I, personally, have found some positive ones too. In case some of my readers are genuinely interested and let me know about it, I might continue. Happy reading and thinking!